Athletics: The world expects, Britain hopes

Countdown to Seville: Heat is on Rawlinson and Radcliffe as the gold standard rises further
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The Independent Online
THE END of the world is nigh - the end of the World Athletics Championships as we have come to know them, that is. Time has moved on for the athletics world at large since the International Amateur Athletic Federation introduced its championships 16 years ago. But for the pole vaulting community it has been one long Groundhog Day. In Helsinki in 1983, in Rome in 1987, in Tokyo in 1991, in Stuttgart in 1993, in Gothenburg in 1995 and in Athens in 1997 the gold medal has gone to Sergei Bubka. There has never been another pole vault world champion. There will be on Thursday week, though.

Bubka's Achilles heel has finally been found, not by his rivals but by the physical ravages of time. An Achilles tendon problem has brought the Ukrainian's remarkable reign to an end after 16 years. In that time Bubka has amassed six gold medals, just three less than six entire teams of British athletes have managed. He has, though, single-handedly maintained a longer winning streak than Great Britain. There were no British winners in Athens two years ago.

There are no gold-plated Great British certainties going to Seville, where the competition opens in the Cartuja Stadium on Saturday. But, as Max Jones, the British team director, forecast: "I think we'll have enough good people out there to get someone on top of the podium."

That someone could even be the man who is a nobody in the current Who's Who of World Athletics. Chris Rawlinson does not feature among the 2,500 entries in the 1999 edition because he was not of the 56 leading 400m hurdlers at the start of the season. He goes to Seville, however, as the third man, following his stunning B race victory in 48.14sec in Zurich on Wednesday night. Only the South African Lewellyn Herbert and the Zambian Samuel Matete have run faster in 1999, though as Herbert's 47.83 was achieved at altitude and Matete, who has clocked 47.91, is recovering from an appendectomy, Rawlinson could line up as the quickest man at sea level this year.

Angelo Taylor, the American who won the Zurich A race in 48.15, will start as favourite but Rawlinson has emerged as a serious contender. A medal of any colour would be a remarkable achievement by the 27-year- old Yorkshireman, a feat Paula Radcliffe would certainly appreciate.

For all her many accomplishments, the British women's team captain has yet to win a major championship medal on the track. Her wait seems certain to end on Thursday week, though whether the Bedford woman can emulate Liz McColgan's Tokyo run of 1991 and collect the gold in the 10,000m remains to be seen.

Radcliffe starts as the top-ranked runner in the event this year, courtesy of the Commonwealth record she set in Spain in April, 30min 40.70sec. She starts with her confidence high, too, having set Commonwealth records at 5,000m and 3,000m last week. In the Zurich 3,000m she finished more than 10 seconds ahead of Fernanda Ribeiro and Tegla Loroupe, two of her main rivals. But, given her lack of a sprint finish, she will need to have the race won before the last lap and breaking clear in mid-race will not be easy in the Sevillian heat.

It is not likely to be easy for any of Britain's gold medal prospectors. None are clear-cut favourites though Jonathan Edwards, like Radcliffe, is a No 1 contender. The Gateshead Harrier tops the triple jump world rankings with 17.52m but has been troubled by a foot injury and Denis Kapustin and Yoelbi Quesada are capable of taking advantage.

Colin Jackson - like Edwards, a former world champion - is capable of winning the 110m hurdles, even if his nemesis of recent years, Allen Johnson, recovers from an ankle injury and Mark Crear, who heads the world rankings, is not troubled by the hamstring problem he has been nursing in recent weeks. Crear, having beaten Jackson in their last two meetings, will start favourite - but only marginally so. Jackson, in all probability, has a 50-50 chance in what should be one of the closest-run races of the championships.

The men's javelin and high jump are likely to be even more open contests. But Steve Backley, in the former, and Steve Smith, in the latter, have the talent and the competitive ability to rise to the big occasion - even though Backley has won just once in 10 competitions this year and Smith has been hampered by a bruised heel since jumping to the top of the world rankings with his 2.36m clearance at Gateshead in June.

Denise Lewis has a proven competitive pedigree too but the calf and ankle injuries that have troubled her this year have made her, like Jackson, no more than an even bet to strike gold. The Birchfield Harrier has been unable to complete a heptathlon in 1999 and, while she emerged from a similar position last year with European and Commonwealth gold medals, she concedes: "I'll be lucky to get away with it two years in a row."

There are several other medal hopefuls in the British squad, notably Mark Richardson in the 400m, but the other big golden shot is likely to be a collective effort - in the men's 4 x 100m relay. The Americans, of course, have Maurice Greene, who stands to become the first man to achieve a world championship 100m and 200m double. But the British have a quartet strong on talent and team spirit in Jason Gardener, Dwain Chambers, Darren Campbell and Julian Golding. They also have hope that, if nothing else, the Americans might not even be in the final reckoning - as was the case in 1995 and again in 1997, when they dropped the baton in the first round.

Time does indeed move on in track and field, as Sergei Bubka is about to find out, but history has a habit of repeating itself. Another US fumble could present a golden hand of opportunity to Britain.